The Great Gatsby

Believe me, I didn’t fly all the way to Cannes just to see The Great Gatsby which already opened in the States last Friday. I was actually going to skip it and instead pour as much of my energy as possible into films that haven’t been seen yet, but I hadn’t had time to see it before I left and, as the first press screening of my first Cannes Film Festival, it seemed like a good opportunity to get my feet wet while figuring out the ins and outs of navigating this crazy place. Unfortunately, Gatsby is pretty much a disaster from the opening frames – it’s not even an interesting misfire – and I was ready to bolt within the first 15 or 20 minutes. I just kept thinking of all the dozens of different things I could be doing instead and they all sounded more appealing than this nice looking but dull and gutless stroll through the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel.

And it’s not because Luhrmann has the ego to screw with a masterpiece. He did it before with Romeo + Juliet and it worked wonderfully. If anything, the problem here is that he didn’t go far enough. There’s some exuberance in the party set-pieces and he’s obviously amused working in 3D, but the film is surprisingly conservative. Basically, Luhrmann chickened out and the result isn’t even a match for the underwhelming (but better than its reputation) Robert Redford adaptation from the 1970s.

I’m not even sure Luhrmann really even gets the novel – at least he didn’t take from it any of the same things I did. For me, the center of it is this deep melancholy; a sense that the Roaring ’20s are winding down and starting to rot from the inside. Everyone is celebrating, but no one is having any fun. Luhrmann excels at showing us the bacchanalia (lovingly rendered in frequently clever and beautiful but utterly superfluous 3D), but he only gets the impending doom about half right and not even half right.

One of the interesting things about the novel is that that Fitzgerald was writing 4 or 5 years before the crash of ’29, but he wrote as if he knows it was coming. He knew the party was unsustainable. Luhrmann has the benefit of hindsight and he misfires in giving the same hindsight to narrator and audience surrogate Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire). Enough I think has been written about the unfortunate bookends to the film that feature Carraway in a sanitarium at some point in the future writing out Gatsby as therapy by way of memoir. Suffice it to say it’s a bush league concept for a novel that deserves so much more and it actually plays out more woodenly than it sounds. Poor Maguire is literally reduced to voice-over narrating what basically amount to Cliff’s Notes of the novel for people too stupid to pick up on the subtext and nuance of what’s happening on screen. Many times, he’s just repeating what has just happened or anticipating what’s to come. I’m generally a fan of voice over in adaptations. It works brilliantly in Barry Lyndon, the Coens’ True Grit and lots of other films because it’s a compact way of giving you some of the literary flavor and tone of a novel. In Luhrmann’s unsubtle hands, however, it’s deadly.

The film starts to sparkle a little bit very late in the story when they’ve all ventured into the city to drink at the Plaza Hotel on a sweltering day and Gatsby and Buchanan engage in a little verbal sword play while laying out the novel’s themes of class resentment and entitlement, but it’s too little too late. Worse, Carey Mulligan is not a Daisy that would inspire such fights. She’s pretty and she’s a fine actress, but she’s not someone men would build castles for. She’s too intellectual for a character who is crafty, but more of a force of nature – a woman who does not have too much going on between the ears and so is a perfect vessel for men to project on to her whatever it is they want her to be. Mulligan is too sensitive and thoughtful and delicate.

Instead of making a relatively straight forward period piece, I think Gatsby might’ve worked better if Luhrmann had updated it in a similar way to Romeo + Juliet. Set it on Wall Street and keep Fitzgerald’s language, but bump the story up to the years leading up to the most recent crash and then stylize the hell out of it. It’s the connection Luhrmann obviously wants the audience to make anyway, so just go for it. Alas, after Australia bombed, the director seems to have lost his nerve.

7 Responses to “Cannes 2013: The Great Gatsby”

  1. I like what you’re suggesting rather than a lush period period with an anachronistic score, but the media was anticipating this movie would bring 20′s style back into the mainstream and usher in a new look and feel. What, really? Anyway, if Gatsby’s claim to fame is that it brings back the flapper, then I guess that’s something. Being a great film apparently isn’t it.

  2. Well, I did see GATSBY and I am pretty much on the other side of the fence. To counter the disaster claim I’d say it’s stylish, exhilarating and a nice stab at a literary masterpiece that is universally recognized as unfilmable. Impressive performances and a lovely score from Craig Armstrong who has previously done excellent work for Luhrmann. My rating is 4/5. Great review as always and a special treat to see the film at Cannes.

  3. If it brings back the flapper, I will eat a bug. I shit you not.

    Sam, I admit there were many good elements, especially the production design. I just wish that Luhrmann had filmed the novel I read. The two felt like they had little in common to me. I have to admit though that I’ve talked to others for whom Luhrmann’s vision is a good match, so perhaps I’m judging purely personally.

  4. Had no interest in this one as soon as I saw the trailer (the music itself was a complete turnoff).

  5. Craig, old sport, I just saw The Great Gatsby today. I give it a 3.5/5 because it was fun to watch, visually fantastic and DiCaprio was fantastic in it. Maguire didn’t bothered me much, but I can see why people didn’t like him much in the film. a) The other actors are far superior than Maguire, and b) Carraway is kind of like a side-pet and not that interesting really compared to the other characters. Still, I liked it better despite reading mixed reactions about the film.

    Speaking of Romeo + Juliet, I was also thinking “what if Claire Danes played Daisy instead of Carey Mulligan?” for a few minutes. It would have been a nice throwback to see DiCaprio and Danes together again (and both are bigger talents nowadays) and I would have loved to see them together again. But I assume Danes was a no-go between working with Homeland and the pregnancy deal (probably Gatsby was filmed around the time Homeland Season 2 was being shot).

  6. Ha, Danes! Good idea, old sport.

    Rodrigo, it sounds like you liked the same things I liked for the most part, they just weren’t enough for me to give this one a pass. Maguire was fine, but the script did not do him any favors. He had a thankless task. DiCaprio also had a hard part. I think Gatsby is a difficult character to pull off, not even Redford got it quite right.

  7. It was worth it for me just on DiCaprio’s portrayal alone. You don’t see too many auteur movies during the summer.

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